The woods are full of magic, but they are not safe. Two strangers will discover this as they explore the strange pathways through the trees. And for one of them, the horrors they find will allow them to reconnect with an old childhood friend.
By Arianna Carrington & Sophie Macdonald
Him: My head hurts. In the distance I hear them, scuttling and insect like. I try to move my arms, but they are bound too tightly. The clicking gets louder.
As a child I was afraid of the cicadas we heard on summer nights. It wasn’t the noise they made, but how many of them there must be to turn what began as a quiet chorus into such a maddening roar. I felt outnumbered.
Those feelings come back to me as I lie here alone in the forest, bound at the wrists and the ankles. They didn’t bother gagging me. Maybe they knew no one would come, or maybe they knew I would be so afraid—so horrified—there was no way I would be capable of uttering a sound.
A noise through the trees stirs me. It’s different from their sound. Heavier; more purposeful. I catch my breath. Could someone be here?
Her: It has been years since I last trekked through these woods. As a child I spent many a day here, exploring the untrodden paths and investigating the strange plants that grew. I was an only child but I was never lonely, for I never ventured out to play without my doll, Annabelle. I don’t remember what happened to her, but she didn’t come with us when we moved away. I don’t recall much from that time. I remember being nine and skipping through the flowers hand in hand with Annabelle, and I remember being eleven and my mother walking me to my new school in the city, but I don’t recall the actual move. I suppose nothing particularly interesting happened that year.
Ten years later, and I’m back in the old hometown. So much has changed that I barely recognise it. But the woods, the woods are the same. There’s something magical about the way the light breaks through in tiny patches and the breeze carries a whisper through the trees. It seems so familiar—that tree with the strangely coloured bark… behind it, there’s a narrow path trod by tiny feet… it leads steeply uphill. It’s a challenge now I’m fully grown, but I’m sure I can squeeze through. The wind whistles overhead, bringing through a hint of odd chattering. I’ve heard that sound before.
Him: They are all around me again. Their small smooth faces, and their identical naked limbs. Painted faces show smiles, but I know they are far from happy. They are starving—abandoned. I see it in the way they clutch at each other, and the dirt on their clothes. I don’t know how many of them there are, but they are dying.
I will feed them for a year. They are whispering now, chitinous and high pitched. They are moving toward the fire that I made—the fire on which I set up this spit, just a few metres away from my campsite. They have torn down all evidence I was here. I don’t know what they did with it, but cloth and canvas were marched past my prone body, like a procession of ants carrying crumbs to the nest.
When I woke up to find myself here, tied to this spit, I thought I was dreaming or seeing things. Had they put something in my beer as I set up camp last night? I drifted in and out of sleep for some time, and my body felt heavy and detached. You would think there would be pain in this position, but I feel nothing at all. I bet I will when they light the fire.
I tried talking to them. I told them my name—Michael—and that I meant no harm. Almost redundant when you are the one about to be eaten.
They look like dolls, but they are obviously more than that. One seems to be in charge of the rest. She is taller, and her matted blonde curls go all the way down to the backs of her knees. When she points, the others do something. I wish she understood me, but she just stares and smiles. Now I am too afraid to talk. I close my eyes, as they light the kindling below me.
Her: The trees are getting denser as I go; the low-lying plants are getting taller. I can barely make out anything ahead, but the sounds are getting more frequent. I can’t understand them but something in me needs to see their source. I smell something too, smoke maybe, just creeping through.
Finally! I tripped over a rock and cut my knee, but the fall brought me into a clearing. Curiously it seems to be a campsite, but obviously long abandoned. Nothing remains but scraps of camping gear far beyond recognition. As I pick my way through this strange site I catch a flash of fire. The source of the smoke! I creep towards it, treading softly. I can smell something else, hidden under the smoke, something roasting.
There are small creatures, a great crowd of them gathered watching, tending the fire. Tiny, barely half a metre high, with matted ringlets strung down their backs. They all hold similar, awkward positions, as though their limbs are fixed in place. Their clothes are tattered and filthy, but look as though once they were fine coloured and shiny. I hold my breath, not wanting to alert them to my presence.
I move closer, hiding in the trees. I need to see their faces. I must know what they are. I can almost see the fire clearly now. The shape on the spit… it’s not animal. Oh god, there are shoes placed next to the fire. Large ones; a man’s shoes. What evil creatures are these? I need to go back before they notice me.
I trip as I turn, landing on my knees. A twig snaps under me and I wince at the sound. I slowly raise my eyes from my feet hoping against hope that I am still unnoticed. I am wrong.